Velella's Drift

An account of Velella's voyage from Seattle to New York via Panama, 2009-2011

Archive for LA to Cabo

Happy Thanksgiving

22 53.65′ N
109 53.16’W

Cabo beach

We put on Christmas music yesterday and I was reminded of being snowed in to Prescott’s apartment in Seattle a couple years ago. I held that chilly, cozy thought in my mind as I savored a tart slice of grapefruit in the blinding sun. It’s hard to believe that today is Thanksgiving, because being from “up North”, I associate this day with piles of snow and hot cider and pumpkin bread bounty. This year though, our Thanksgiving will be celebrated with a swim and snorkel in the 75-degree “pool,” fresh guacamole, and bright yellow cans of Pacifico Clara. There is no sign of Thanksgiving in the sweeping blue bay at Cabo San Lucas, but I have a long list of things I am thankful for.

Numerous times on the way down the coast, I decided to become the voluntary spokeswoman for several pieces of gear we have on Velella. I even tried to write a couple odes (I’m not kidding.) It’s no secret that cruising is seriously hard work–so our gear choices have become hugely important to me on a daily and hourly basis. Let me give you an example.

Poled out to make room for sky

Because we’re downwind sailing almost all of the time in relatively light air, our foresail tends to collapse and snap full when we’re rolling over the swell. It’s hard on the rig and irritating, and most often requires us to douse the sail altogether and sail on just the main (a slow way to go). So, I am extremely thankful for our brand new whisker pole, compliments of Forespar, which is rigged on a sliding track on the front of the mast. The pole telescopes and holds the foot of the foresail out on the opposite side of the main (to windward), allowing the sail to fill with air unobstructed by the main and steadying it from collapse. We spent 48 hours recently running wing on wing with the whisker pole making 6.5 knots instead of 4–a HUGE improvement in speed for us. The whisker pole turned what could have been a passage of two nights and three days into only one and a half days. Which means more time lounging around at anchor, reading and snorkeling in the sun–and that’s the point of all this, right?

We also upgraded Velella with a SSB transiver and Pactor Modem, a combination of radio equipment which allows us to receive daily weather forecast files on our computer and connect with huge nets of sailors headed in our same direction. Every day, we listen to Don Anderson from Santa Barbara give detailed voice forecasts for our specific locations–it’s like having a professional weather router for free. And, the modem allows us to send and receive email from home. On a journey filled with empty sea and time alone, the ability to connect over long distances with other sailors and with our family is a crucial component of our morale.

Monitor steering, Prescott & Nessie on watch

Perhaps the biggest boon has been the Monitor self-steering wind vane. I can’t say enough about this ingenious framework of stainless steel mounted quietly on our stern. Not only does it draw zero energy, deriving all of its power from the wind and leverage from mechanical gears, it steers the boat flawlessly and efficiently. The Monitor has taught us to be better sailors, because in order for it to work, the sails need to be perfectly balanced. It’s been the best teacher of the fine art of sail trim I’ve ever had. It steers the boat 98% of the time–freeing the former helmsman up to view dolphins from the bow, go below to make a quick sandwich, or curl up under the dodger with a book at night. It is such an integral part of our lives that we even gave it a name (a common thing for cruisers to do actually). In our logbook when we notate the running position, barometric reading, conditions, etc., under “At the Helm” we now put “SG” more often than not. Samwise Gamgee at the helm. Prescott named it Sam after the Lord of the Rings character–when I asked him why that name, he replied, “because when Frodo was too weak to make it up the mountain with the Ring, Sam was the one who carried him.”

Oh, and the list goes on. Our hot black sun shower, shady sun awning, powerful array of solar panels, etc. etc. They all come together in a fantastic symphony working together to make the trip safe, comfortable, and so much fun. So I am extremely thankful this Thanksgiving that we have gear that acts as a silent crew, helping us with the heavy lifting of such an undertaking.

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Addendum to “statiscally speaking”

Number of fish caught: 1.

Nessie watching Prescott fish


Fish #1! Black Skipjack




Hola, Mexico!

We entered Mexican waters over a week ago, but it wasn’t until yesterday that we actually set foot on shore in Bahia de Tortugas for our first $1 cervezas on the beach.* Offshore, there was little to distinguish the coast from that of southern California, although night watches have gotten progressively warmer (or perhaps that’s only psychological, it’s hard to tell.) Groups of islands that look remarkably similar to California’s Channel Islands have appeared every hundred miles or so; the Coronados, Islas de Todos Santos, and Isla Cedros and surrounding islets. The arid coastline has been marked by deep arroyos, scrubby sage-colored vegetation, and pods of dolphins and spouting whales. Pacific sunsets each night are spectacular, and sunrises even more so after twelve hours under the stars. The most marked difference in Mexican water so far has been the red, white, and green courtesy flag flying from our starboard spreader—each time I trim the sails I’m reminded that we’re guests here.

After over a week of lonely voyaging (with one stop in a desolate anchorage where we didn’t go ashore), we pulled in yesterday morning to Bahia de Tortugas, or Turtle Bay, a favorite all-weather port for cruisers making passage down the Baja coast. For days, I had looked forward to arriving at the small village our guidebook reported as having a café, hospital, grocery store, hotel, etc. We could top off our diminishing water supply, re-provision, send emails and photos to family from the internet café, and do laundry—the ultimate luxury! Pulling in to the bay, though, I was dubious that we’d find any of that, as the village appeared to be no more than a few deserted shacks on shore. But there was a large sign painted on a concrete seawall in black lettering that said “Bienvenidos a Bahia Tortugas.” We must be in the right place.

After a fabulously revitalizing sun-shower in the cockpit and a much-deserved three-hour nap, we decided to get the dinghy down and row to shore on a reconnaissance mission. On our way towards shore, we passed a panga moored some way off the beach that was filled to the brim with pelicans — so far, the only sign of life in Bahia de Tortugas . We were pleased to find a floating dinghy dock extending out from the pier though, a nice alternative to surfing the dinghy up to the beach. We tied up next to a handful of other cruisers’ tenders, climbed the suspect staircase up to the pier, and met Pedro and Enrique, the dock attendants.

Though they spoke little English and we little Espanol, we determined that they not only had purified water, they would deliver it to our anchored boat and fill our tanks for less than $15 (the alternative would be a tricky “med-moor” to the pier with heavy surge, no thank you). They showed us the laundry lady’s home next to the beach—she does all your laundry and returns it to you folded. Then Pedro walked us all the way to the mercado grande, and on the way back showed us where showers and the wifi cafés were.

It amazes me that in a sleepy town that’s half-finished or torn-town structures are all covered in windblown desert dust, and where there appears to be no more than a couple dozen people living, there are not one but TWO free wifi cafes.

We were quickly introduced to the circle of gringo cruisers sitting along the beach with cervezas, and we made friends with several couples instantly. After all, it’s a very small community, and we have quite a bit in common. The cruising community is a strong one, in part because it’s small, and in large part due to the lack of constant access to the internet. Going cruising is like stepping back in time—no longer can you look up the NOAA weather forecast online, or the phone number or directions to the nearest repair shop, or where to get a good hot meal in a given city. Cruisers keep a wealth of information alive for each other by sharing bits of information constantly on shore and over the radios. It would be tiring if you had to find your way around a new town every other day, but as soon as you drop the hook, a chat with your first cruising neighbor reveals not only where the port captain and grocery store is, but also where to find fresh bread baked daily, or where locals will trade you five live lobster for two of your beers.

I’m on shore today to buy some yeast so I can bake bread for one of our sailing neighbors, who is lent me her sewing machine so I could fix a tear in our mainsail. We all check in daily to several cruising nets on the SSB radio, to hear weather forecasts tailored specifically to those of us “on the net;” to take down each other’s passage plans and positions, to relay messages between friends over thousands of miles of ocean.

Our newfound cruising community gives us a great sense of security. Until now, we’ve been alone and offshore, and seeing a ship’s lights on the horizon at night (or even more unnerving, an unlit ship on the radar) sends chills down my spine sometimes. But since we’ve arrived at Bahia de Tortugas and met more cruisers, we look forward to checking in with them daily on the nets and swapping red peppers for beer or gum for fresh shrimp. Ironically, we’re strengthening our human community by venturing farther off the grid than ever before.

Until the next check-in, this is Velella, WDF4539, clear and on the side!

( *We actually did spend four and a half hours on Mexican soil a week ago clearing in to Ensenada, but I maintain that you haven’t truly arrived in Mexico until you’re having a cerveza on the beach! )

Daylight Savings

31 10.23’N, 117 06.38’W

Cruise ship off to port near Oceanside, 1am

“Dark as night” gets to deeper levels when you’re 50 miles offshore at 3am. The absence of the moon makes the blackness complete, since the stars shed no light, but merely leave a pointillist reminder of what light was like in the sky.

I awoke for watch at 2am this morning; Prescott had been on since 8pm. We’re doing 6-hour night watches this time around, because 4 on 4 off is just too exhausting on too little sleep for us. If the weather is good, 6 hours passes painlessly, even in when it’s pitch black. Still, you have to count the hours.

We wake each other up for watch with a hot cup of black tea. Once I get settled in to the cockpit (position and course understood, sails and autopilot tuned how I want them), I clip in and curl up under the dodger with several pillows, a fleece blanket, and my warm mug. For the first hour, I let my mind go totally blank for as long as I can. I don’t know why I do this-probably in part because I’m just waking up, and in part because I’m trying to save all my thoughts and activities for later in the watch when I’m bored. Surprisingly, my first blank hour sails by quickly.

By the second hour, my boiling hot tea is finally cool enough for me to drink. So I turn on my iPod and listen to music while I enjoy it. For an hour. The third hour is when I start writing in my head. I consider several possible stories and detail them at length in my mind. The fourth hour is when I get out my computer and actually start typing. By the fifth hour I’m hungry, so I consider at length what kind of breakfast I should make when Prescott gets up. This decision takes into account the sea state, the temperature, what’s on top of the fridge, and how strong my stomach is feeling.

Kitten watching the sunrise

Just when I’ve decided on pancakes and coffee and start feeling sick because I haven’t seen the horizon for so long, the darkness begins to lift, just a little bit, in the East. Like a heavy blanket it’s pushed up by a light grey arc, which becomes purple, then pink, then orange, then glorious light blue as the sun lifts swiftly over the horizon and thaws my fingers. Nessie often wakes up in time for the sunrise and watches it with me from the cockpit. As I write this, a lone tern has found Velella and is circling and dive-bombing us-an activity which Nessie finds endlessly amusing.

We are currently making way southward toward Turtle Bay, about halfway down the Baja peninsula and clipping along at close to 7 knots. Since we’ve left Los Angeles, the weather has been warm and welcoming. Yesterday, we spent less than 24 hours on a brief stop in Ensenada to clear in to Mexico-an onerous task which took no less than five of those hours, after which we slept for twelve.

I’ve read and heard that Pacific Baja is like the husk surrounding the fruit of the Sea of Cortez. But with weather like we’ve been having offshore, and the hot southern sun rising over my shoulder right now, I rather like the husk! At this rate, we may be in Turtle bay by the end of the day tomorrow-which means only one more yawning night before we can curl our toes on the beach and relax. Meanwhile, you can follow our live track (see “Where’s Velella Now?” in the Pages column to the right).

Sailors, sailors, sailors

San Diego is great, and I’m glad we get to spend some time here. After sailing all day Sunday and doing a night watch on Halloween (spooky!) we pulled into port here Monday evening. The sun was setting and the skyline was all a-glimmer. The skyscrapers of this healthy-sized city stand watch over the waterfront, and for a moment I felt like we were heading back into Seattle. A blast of desert breeze reminded me that we were still in southern California, and that things were only getting warmer.

In addition to being markedly warmer, San Diego as a whole seems more hospitable than Los Angeles. Boating is king in San Diego bay and the waterfront community is built to cater to us cruisers, a far cry from the terrible customer service in Marina Del Rey. And although the water is still the same LA shade of murky green, there is at least evidence of life. Sea anemones cling to the side of the docks, reminding us of how disgusting our former home was.

As we puttered up to our guest dock, we noticed a small motor boat coasting parallel to us. One of the crew reached into the water… and a dolphin broke the surface right under his hand. No joke! Sea World is only a couple miles away, and perhaps this dolphin is a part-time employee. Meg watched enviously as the dolphin rolled over for a stomach scratch. “Hey, I want to pet a dolphin!” I promised Meghan I’d find her a dolphin to pet before the end of our trip.

We’re not in any particular hurry to head down to our Mexican port of check-in, Ensenada. The weather seems to be holding at less than ten knots of wind for the next week, and the ocean swell is diminishing day by day. At 10.50 a night our San Diego slip is a bargain, especially when compared to the $105 a night fee for the yacht club next door. The next leg of our trip is the desolate Baja coast, which I’m not looking forward to. It’s a rocky desert coast with bad anchorages, dusty scenery, and expensive provisions. Our guidebook compares Baja to a fruit, describing the Pacific Coast as the “dry husk that protects the succulent Sea of Cortez”. We’ve been told to make haste down Baja and get to the good stuff.

To get the information we needed we spoke to a half dozen cruisers. Or rather, they spoke to us. Conversations are rare in the cruising world. What’s more common are sailors talking over one another or, if you’re like us, getting talked “at” until you come up with your excuse to make an exit. As I told Meghan yesterday, my least favorite thing about sailing is other sailors.

There are three main categories of sailors. The first is the Long-Winded Cruiser. These are the guys waiting on the dock as you sail into port. They don’t help with the lines, but immediately ask their gateway question: “Where ya’ comin’ from?” It doesn’t matter what you answer. The Long-Winded Cruiser launches into his prepared sea shanty about the weather, his recent travels, or whatever sailing-related topic is on his mind. After half an hour of nodding politely, you finally excuse yourself to finish tying up the boat. Strap a Long-Winded Cruiser to your mast and these blowhards will keep your sails full.

Type two is the Jimmy Buffet. The Jimmy Buffet doesn’t exist north of 38 degrees. He tends to congregate around the equator, and becoming increasingly prevalent as you head south. He’s easy to recognize: Look for the mullet and the t-shirt with booze-related slogan (‘its happy hour somewhere’). His boat is a Frankenstein’s Monster stitched together out of balsa wood, stove pipe and frayed dockline. The Jimmy Buffet can be humorous or downright sketchy. Last night as Meg and I were going to sleep, we heard a knock on the hull. I went up top to investigate, only to find a drunken Jimmy Buffet. staggering on the dock. His slur was thick, but eventually I realized that he’d mistaken Velella the wrong boat and was climbing aboard! I informed him of his error, he mumbled an apology, and we locked our doors.

The worst kind to sail with is type three, The Captain. The Captain doesn’t have his captain’s license, but knows how best to do everything, all the time. He sails his boat like a warship, and often has a naval background. Even when sailing your boat, there are only two ways of doing things: The Captain’s way and the wrong way. The Captain loves a good argument, so it’s best to suppress what you’re really thinking. A better strategy is just to nod politely… and never invite him on to your boat!

There are so many sailors, I expected more variety. Where are the odd ducks from the Pacific Northwest? Where are all the good folk from Minnesota? I’m excited for people to start visiting us. My parents are coming in December and Peter, my friend from high school. After that Meghan’s parents will join us and her friend Tessa. Following two years of conversations about the boat, I hunger for any stimulus not sailing-related. What I wouldn’t give to have a conversation about philosophy, cars, or politics. Hell, I’ll even talk about football.

So if you’re reading this, come on down! You can bring us word from the outside world and in exchange we’ll teach you how to sail, and give you a glimpse into this unique lifestyle. It’s like nothing else on the planet, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy it. And if I yammer on, you’ll have to forgive me. I am, after all, a sailor.

ADDENDUM: As I reread this, I realize that Velella is flanked on either side by boats from Canada. Their presence requires me to add a fourth category: The Canadian. They are polite, clean, and make liberal use of the word “Eh?”

Upgrades to Velella’sDrift

Just wanted to call your attention to a couple of new things in Pages and Links:

First, we’ve added a Forespar link because they are now another official sponsor of our trip! They contributed some absolutely fabulous gear that I’ll be writing about soon.

The Itinerary Page is now updated with a pretty little graphic of roughly where we’ll be when.

There’s a new “Where’s Velella Now?” page that links to our GoogleMaps breadcrumb trail, so you can see where we’ve been for the past week.

And, there’s a new Outfitting Image Gallery if you’re curious to see what we’ve been doing all year in LA.

Forced into the moment

Sanded and cleaned decks


Yesterday, I chiseled off the last of dozens of teak plugs that I replaced on Velella’s decks. I spent days sanding, routing out old caulking, and smoothing in new shiny black lines. Months, actually. The plugs were the last in a long line of deck-related projects, and now she’s snug and dry and ready for sea.

We’re moored right next to the seawall in Marina del Rey’s D Basin, so we often have passers-by calling over the fence into our cockpit. I looked up from sanding when a guy said “So, when’r you leavin?” I said “Saturday, maybe Sunday.” And he smiled wide and said “Congratulations.”

People usually say “good luck” or “have fun” or “fair winds” when they hear about our plans. But this gentleman clearly had done this before, because instead he was congratulating me on how far we had already come.

I get close to tears when I realize it’s finally, finally here. (Who am I kidding? I bawl my eyes out.) This day came so suddenly and quietly after months and years of work–the list just evaporated and all that’s left is to turn in our keys. Our good friends Anna and Brad flew down from Seattle and drove away with our car, and just like that, we were back in cruising mode. On foot, slowed down, forced to deal with the moment rather than the future.

Since I had been going 60 miles an hour since I woke up yesterday (this whole month really), I was jittery when we went to bed. In order to help me fall asleep, I asked Prescott to tell me a story, because he’s really good at that. He asked if a story about the Gold Rush would be okay. I looked at him warily. He began: “Once upon a time, there was a prospector looking for gold. But he wasn’t rushing.”

I asked him to stop the story right there, because that was perfect. As I fell asleep, I congratulated us on arriving to a place where we are no longer rushing, and no longer looking forward to what’s next.

Headed back to MDR after splashing